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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Remakes are rarely as good as the original

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE feels like a disappointing remake

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
(Image: © Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Laptop Mag Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE follows the same recipe as the Galaxy S20 FE, but delays and strong competition in the affordable flagship market make it feel like reheated leftovers.

Pros

  • +

    Versatile camera system

  • +

    Excellent software support

  • +

    Powerful Snapdragon 888 processor

  • +

    Unique and comfortable design

  • +

    Bright 120Hz display

Cons

  • -

    Mediocre battery life

  • -

    Lacks adaptive 120Hz display

  • -

    Galaxy S22 is coming soon

  • -

    Disappointing telephoto lens

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE specs

Price: $699
OS: One UI 4.0 (Android 12)
Display: 6.4-inch (2,400 x 1,080 pixels) Dynamic AMOLED 2X with 120Hz
CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
RAM: 6GB
Rear cameras: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP ultra-wide (f/2.2); 8MP 3x telephoto (f/2.4)
Front cameras: 32MP (f/2.2)
Storage: 128 or 256GB
Battery: 7:47 hours (120Hz); 9:15 (60Hz)
Size: 6.1 x 2.9 x 0.32 inches
Weight: 6.2 ounces  

The Galaxy S21 FE has a tough act to follow as the Galaxy S20 FE was one of our favorite phones of 2020 and 2021 and while it sticks to the same recipe, some of the ingredients are past their sell-by date.

Taken as a whole, the Galaxy S21 FE is still solid hardware with a Snapdragon 888 processor, a triple camera array with telephoto, a bright and vivid 120Hz display and a large 4,500mAh battery. However, the $699 price point that made it a standout in late 2020, now places it just $100 shy of the main Galaxy S series that is about to be refreshed again and $100 more than the excellent Pixel 6. 

The proximity of the Galaxy S22 (and other flagship launches) along with a lack of significant upgrades to the hardware make the Galaxy S21 FE hard to recommend, at least at full price. But if you can find a deal, there is still plenty to like about this phone.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE price and configurations

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE starts at $699, which includes 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage. For $70 more, you double your storage to 256GB and also bump up to 8GB of RAM. 

If you are going to keep the phone for more than a year or two the upgrade is worth the cost as RAM and storage limitations both can slow your phone down over time. 

While the Galaxy S21 FE matches the launch price of the Galaxy S20 FE, it’s much harder to get excited about its $699 price point when the excellent Pixel 6 undercuts it at $599 and the Galaxy S22 is due to arrive soon and presumably will stick to a $799 price point. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE design

The Galaxy S21 FE design predictably follows that of the Galaxy S21 models with the Contour Cut Camera housing that blends seamlessly with the top and sides of the phone providing a distinctive Samsung look. It’s subtler than the original Galaxy S21 as the camera housing is smaller and color-matched to the back of the phone. 

Like the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus, the S21 FE uses a polycarbonate back rather than glass. And while I know some are put off by this, I find it really pleasant to hold and it should do better with the occasional drop. It also makes the phone incredibly light at 6.2 ounces despite measuring 6.1 x 2.9 x 0.31 inches. For a device with a 6.4-inch display that’s impressively compact, smaller and lighter than either the Pixel 6 (6.2 x 2.9 x 0.35, 7.3 ounces) or OnePlus 9 (6.3 x 2.9 x 0.32, 6.8 ounces). The iPhone 13 (5.8 x 2.8 x 0.3, 6 ounces) undercuts it, but with a much smaller 6.1-inch display.
 

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

The Olive colorway on my review model is subdued, but a welcome change from the typical options. The silver lining the camera lenses and sides of the phone offers at least some contrast, but overall it’s pretty staid. If that isn’t to your taste, you can also choose from Phantom Black, Phantom White or Lavender. From a size and usability standpoint, I think the Galaxy S21 FE is one of the best phones I’ve used in some time, but I’m less enamored with the look as it doesn’t pop as much as the Galaxy S21 did with its contrasting camera housing. Ultimately most people will put a case on the phone anyway, which will change both the feel and the look, but for naked phone purists, the Galaxy S21 FE is a slightly mixed bag. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE offers IP68 dust and water resistance certification, which should help it hold up to the rigors of daily life. While the back may be polycarbonate, Samsung didn’t skimp on the glass up front with Corning Gorilla Glass Victus keeping your display safe from cracks or scratching.

As per usual, the ports and buttons are kept to a minimum with a power/multifunction button and volume rocker on the right and the USB-C port and SIM card slot at the bottom.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE display

Samsung’s mobile displays are second to none, and though the Galaxy S21 FE does drop the ball in one key area, it’s not display quality. The 6.4-inch FHD+ (2400 x 1080 pixels) Dynamic AMOLED 2X display offers a 120Hz refresh rate that stacks up well against any of the flagship competition. That one drawback? It’s not an adaptive refresh rate, so unlike the original Galaxy S21 models or most other current flagships, you need to switch between 60Hz and 120Hz manually.

We’ll get to the ramifications of that decision in the battery life section. However, the display remains gorgeous, and the 120Hz refresh rate delivers buttery smooth visuals in the core OS and the growing number of apps that support a high refresh rate. 

I turned to Life in Color with David Attenborough and watched the “Seeing in Color” episode to test the display. The varied and vibrant blues and oranges of the mantis shrimp are beautifully rendered on the Galaxy S21 FE display, and the tiny fibrous projections from its legs offer a glimpse at how exquisitely sharp the phone’s display is as well.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Our lab testing was equally effusive for the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE, with the phone reproducing 78.5% of the DCI-P3 color gamut in its Natural color setting. The iPhone 13 (78.1%) came the closest to matching it, while the Pixel 6 (71.5%) and the OnePlus 9 (73.8%) couldn’t quite match up. However, the Android phones all support a Vivid mode if you want a more saturated look, here the S21 FE again came out on top (146.9%), but this pushed the OnePlus 9 (141.3%) well beyond the iPhone. 

Our Delta-E color accuracy test results (lower is better) were reasonable, but not outstanding for the Galaxy S21 FE at 0.29. The iPhone 13 leads among this group at 0.26, while the Pixel 6 (0.28) and OnePlus 9 (0.27) slot in between them.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE fared well in our brightness test with a peak of 704 nits. That couldn’t quite match up with the Pixel 6 (843 nits) or the iPhone 13 (795 nits), but it narrowly overpowered the OnePlus 9 (696 nits). These phones are all easily bright enough for use in direct sunlight, so don’t let this tip you one way or the other.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE cameras

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE features the now-familiar triple camera array on the back with a wide-angle, ultra-wide and telephoto lens. This is one area where the S21 FE does still stand out versus other phones in its price range as typically you only see a telephoto on top-tier flagships. 

However, the sensors are similar to the Galaxy S20 FE, not the Galaxy S21, with a 12MP wide-angle at f/1.8 with optical image stabilization (OIS) and dual pixel autofocus, a 12MP ultra-wide at f/2.2 and an 8MP 3x telephoto at f/2.4. Around the front, you have a 32MP selfie camera at f/2.2. It’s not a bad collection of sensors by any means, but it feels stagnant and while Google’s Pixel 6 lacks a telephoto, its primary wide-angle sensor is a considerable upgrade from anything the Galaxy S21 FE has to offer. 

Regardless, the real question is how do these sensors perform in real-world usage, and overall I’ve been happy with the results I’ve gotten from the Galaxy S21 FE. Samsung is nothing if not consistent with the photo processing on its phones and the S21 FE again cranks the saturation and brightness up to 11, which some love and others hate. I see both sides of the argument, there’s a hyperreality to Samsung photos that at times I feel captures how I actually wanted a scene to look, while occasionally I’m left feeling like it looks completely fake. 

While Wisconsin’s weather has been pretty bleak during my time with the Galaxy S21 FE (I was excited to see the temperatures soar up to 25 degrees once), the blue sky has managed to peek through occasionally, and the Galaxy S21 FE was ready to take advantage. These shots of a mural on the side of a restaurant show the good side of its saturation with the cloud-streaked sky contrasting with the vivid (if exaggerated) red building.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE wide-angle camera sample

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

In a similar vein, this night shot of a statue of a Beefeater in an inexplicably U.K.-themed ally near my home gives a bright pop to the red uniform even in minimal lighting. The Galaxy S21 FE doesn’t stand up to the likes of the iPhone 13 or Pixel 6 when it comes to low-light photos, but a little ambient light goes a long way for it. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera samples

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

The ultra-wide performance is similar; here’s that same mural shot again and you’ve got virtually identical brightness and coloring, which is exactly what you want. That holds true in daylight; low-light photography falls off considerably on the ultra-wide due to its weaker aperture, lack of OIS and smaller sensor size.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE ultra-wide camera sample

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

The telephoto is the weakest link in the chain for the Galaxy S21 FE. While I still prefer that it exists as you can get usable photos at a distance that you would otherwise miss, it’s such a significant drop off from the primary that it’s harder to know when it will be worth it. Samsung allows you to push all the way up to a 30x zoom with it, optical is 3x, but as you can see in the samples, things fall apart rapidly after even 5-6x unless you are able to stabilize. 

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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera samples

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - wide-angle

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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera samples

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - 3x zoom telephoto

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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera samples

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - 30x zoom telephoto

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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera samples

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - wide-angle

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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera samples

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - 3x zoom telephoto

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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera samples

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - 30x telephoto

The Galaxy S21 FE has its biggest megapixel monster on the front with a 32MP front-facing camera and the results from it were a bit of a mixed bag. If you use the full 32MP resolution it produces excellent sharp photos, but that isn’t the default setting and images are muddy and almost blurry at the lower resolution. Samsung used pixel binning on the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 108MP primary sensor and the 64MP telephoto of the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus without this issue, so I’m not sure why it is such a problem here. Just remember to make that setting change when you first launch the selfie camera and you’ll be fine.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE front-facing camera sample

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE front-facing camera - default resolution

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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE front-facing camera sample

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - front-facing camera - full resolution

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE performance and graphics

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE features the same Snapdragon 888 processor as the original Galaxy S21 series. It remains a solid chip that delivers enough performance for virtually any task, but with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 already announced and presumably arriving in the Galaxy S22 in just a couple of weeks, it does feel like you are getting a last gen processor rather than just being one of the last to get the current top of the line.

I ran the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE through my typical gamut of smartphone tasks, loading up a couple of dozen Google Chrome tabs, running a Netflix video in the background, and then swapping between several other apps including Twitter, YouTube Music, and Gmail. None of this presented a problem for the S21 FE, it easily churned through them without a stutter or dropped frame.  

While you can feel the 120Hz refresh rate just swiping through your home screen and apps, it’s particularly notable in games. I fired up PUBG Mobile to put the game to the test and it was more than up to the challenge. Even with the graphics and refresh rate maxed out the game held up well, leaving me with no one to blame except myself when I got killed in the desert of Miramar.

The Geekbench 5 score isn’t going to blow anyone away, but the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE managed a solid multi-core score of 3,199. That’s not of course in the same ballpark as the iPhone 13 (4,436) and even the OnePlus 9 (3,618) beat it pretty handily, but it does outperform the Pixel 6 (2,696) with Google’s new Tensor chip.

Graphics testing went better for the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE. In the Wild Life Unlimited graphics test, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE hit 34 frames per second, matching the Pixel 6 and OnePlus 9 exactly, while the iPhone 13 (56 fps) waved at the others as it streaked past them. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE battery life and charging

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE upstages the Galaxy S21 with a 4,500mAh battery, a full 500mAh larger. However, this is where we see the lack of an adaptive refresh rate come back to bite the S21 FE. 

Our Laptop Mag Battery test has the phone continuously surf the web over cellular with the display set to 150 nits of brightness, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE on its 120Hz setting averaged only 7 hours and 47 minutes. Dropping the display to its 60Hz setting bumped this all the way up to 9 hours and 15 minutes, but you’re sacrificing a big benefit of this phone. That is easily outpaced by the iPhone 13 (10:33) and OnePlus 9 (10:53), while the Pixel 6 (7:47) matched it precisely in its static refresh rate mode. 

While this isn’t what I was expecting based on the specs, I didn’t find it to be a problem in day-to-day usage. During my reviews I typically take the phone off the charger at 7:30 a.m. and return it to the charger at around 10:30 p.m. after roughly 2 hours of Netflix and/or YouTube streaming on Wi-Fi, web browsing, using social media, gaming for about 30 minutes and capturing photos and videos. I only killed the phone completely once during my time with it and that was on a day where I captured nearly 30 minutes of 4K video and took several dozen photos. While it’s not going to be storming up the charts among the phones with the best battery life, most people won’t have a problem getting through the day with the S21 FE, just don’t expect much more. 

Charging is unchanged from the Galaxy S21 with 25W wired fast charging, if you pick up the necessary adapter, and 15W wireless charging. With the Pixel 6 and many other affordable phones now offering wireless charging that isn’t the notable inclusion that it was on the Galaxy S20 FE and 25W is just fine, not great, rumors suggest faster charging may finally arrive on the Galaxy S22.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE software

The Galaxy S21 FE runs Samsung’s One UI 4.0, a modified version of Android 12. That’s great news, as it means your three major OS updates that Samsung promises for the phone should get you through to Android 15. Samsung’s update track record is now second only to Google with four years of security updates for its phones.

One UI 4.0 doesn’t take on the new Material You design, which given how substantial a departure it is, will probably be welcome news to some users. However, it does pick up the considerable customization options available in Android 12 to change the look of virtually anything on your device. The more robust privacy features are present as well with granular controls over what data and features apps have access to, further bolstered by Samsung’s Knox hardware built into the phone.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Bottom line

At $699, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is affordable compared to its flagship competitors, but it isn’t the slam dunk value that its predecessor was. Some of this is the market around the phone, the Pixel 6 at $599 is one of the best values that we’ve ever seen in the Android world and Samsung’s Galaxy S21 starting at $799 rather than $999 for the Galaxy S20 makes the S21 FE feel like less of a steal.

The delayed release of the Galaxy S21 FE compounds its problems as the Galaxy S22 is almost certainly right around the corner. And again, given the relatively minor price disparity between the two and the presumed upgrades coming to that phone, the Galaxy S21 FE becomes a tough sell.

At its retail price, I wouldn’t recommend that you pick up the Galaxy S21 FE, it simply doesn’t represent a good enough value this time around. However, I fully expect it to drop to $599 or less in the near future, and then it becomes a much more compelling option. The 6.4-inch, FHD+ display is excellent, the Snapdragon 888 delivers solid performance, the triple camera array gives you flexibility and in terms of usability, the design is one of my favorites in recent memory. It’s a very good phone, just don’t pay full price for it.

Sean Riley has been covering tech professionally for over a decade now. Most of that time was as a freelancer covering varied topics including phones, wearables, tablets, smart home devices, laptops, AR, VR, mobile payments, fintech, and more.  Sean is the resident mobile expert at Laptop Mag, specializing in phones and wearables, you'll find plenty of news, reviews, how-to, and opinion pieces on these subjects from him here. But Laptop Mag has also proven a perfect fit for that broad range of interests with reviews and news on the latest laptops, VR games, and computer accessories along with coverage on everything from NFTs to cybersecurity and more.